There is so much to do when you travel. Between the ancient ruins, shopping promenades and endless museums and cathedrals it is easy to miss one of the simplest, and most delicious ways to experience a culture. Through their food!
Before I get too far in, I want to address that we eat almost anything, but we understand there are many different people out there with different dietary requirements. I have heard say that for vegans, when in doubt head to a Chinese/Japanese restaurant as they are most likely to have steamed rice and vegetables, as some places will not always have a large variety of dishes.
Finding food in Europe is not hard at all, but selecting what to try, where to eat, and when can sometimes leave you grabbing anything you can find, or over paying for mass produced 'local' food made just for tourists.
Here are some tips to getting the most out of your meals, and adding to your overall experience...
How to get a big bang for your buck...
Since you are in a new place, and on vacation, it can be tempting to want to sit on a nice patio and have a wonderful 3 course meal of local favourites. This actually can be a lot of fun and a great way to try those mussels in Brussels, or escargot in Paris, without committing to, and paying for a whole order. In many touristy areas throughout Europe you will find streets lined with restaurants all offering similar meal packages, and most with the traditional offerings you must try at some point.
Now here's the tip. Go for lunch.
These menus are usually great value, with lunch running much less than the very similar dinner. They also offer a great variety, so trying and enjoying more is very possible. Taking a break from museums and attractions mid day to sit and people watch, can not only give you that needed break, but fuel your adventures for the rest of the day.
Get on board with the local meal times...
One of my favourite parts of visiting a different country is trying to be as much of a local as possible. One of the easiest ways to do this, is eat like one. Throughout much of the hot Mediterranean it is common to skip breakfast, or have something very small and sweet, with a cappuccino. In other words, don't expect that full English breakfast or all day brunch you might be used to.
On the other hand, don't be afraid to have that half pint mid day at the local pub, or a pizza and espresso at 9pm. Revel in the delicious way you are fitting in!
It is also common for many places to close between lunch and dinner, so pay attention or you might end up learning the hard way, as we did in Bordeaux wondering for hours waiting, and starving.
You are on their turf, and try to adjust, rather than spending your whole trip trying to do things just as you would at home, will make for happier times, and more fulfilled travels. (This is actually a good tip all round for travelling.)
Ask a local...
At some point during your visit you will find yourself face to face with a real live local. Maybe you are in a small shop, have a friendly cabbie, or a great tour guide, ask them where they go. Odds are they have a brother that runs a place, or frequent a hole in the wall trattoria that has been running for generations. The easiest way to eat like a local is to get off the main strip and go where they go when out with their friends, or after work.
It's a good sign if when waiting for your food all you hear is the local language filling the room.
Don't eat right outside the big attractions...
Everyone wants the most from their trip. It is easy to think that the best food experience will be right there on main square, or beside the top attractions. In many cases, this is actually opposite from the truth.
The truth is, around most tourist attractions you will find places geared towards tourists. While this can be great for souvenirs, when it comes to food it can leave you wanting. Many popular places pump out the same bland dishes, or sub par quality, to tour groups filled with people that won't know any better. They are called tourist traps for a reason. This is why that pizza you got outside the Vatican wasn't all you'd hoped from you first authentic Italian pizza.
While cover charges are common throughout Europe, they can catch you off guard and add up over the course of a trip. They will always be highest by the top attractions. So after that inspiring visit to yet another church, walk a few side streets over from the tourist sight and start your search there. You'll end up with a lower bill and a happier stomach.
Markets are like living museums...
A huge part of daily life throughout much of Europe is a visit to the local market. Whether you are planning on using that hostel kitchen to create a masterpiece, or heading out to the park for a picnic, you will find what you are looking for, and a whole lot more. Some of my favourite memories are of wondering the endless rows of fruit and cheeses, from the olives warming in the Athens sun to the best pickles ever in Vienna's Naschmarkt. Create your own food tour, and all for a great price. Find the local specialities and create a meal to remember.
Cooking food for yourself, and sharing in the culinary traditions of where you are can also bring you closer to the land you are visiting, and best of all, gain you some great recipes you can take home with you.
It's important to remember that food is a big part of life not only in Europe, but all over the world. From what you eat, how you eat it and the overall atmosphere, your meals can be a big part of the adventure. Don't be afraid to try new things and keep an open mind, because those will be the best stories and maybe you'll learn a few things to take home, making everyday a little more exotic.
By: Heather Nassler